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Interview | April 15, 2024

Unpacking The Federal Executive Branch, A Conversation With Vanderbilt University Professor David Lewis

2024 ElectionCongressional OversightExecutive BranchGovernment Capacity
Unpacking The Federal Executive Branch, A Conversation With Vanderbilt University Professor David Lewis

Coverage of presidential elections typically hones in on contestants’ competing legislative visions, which in truth, tend to morph considerably when hit by the reality of an intransigent Congress. This prompts an important question: are presidential elections overrated? Well, before drawing that conclusion, consider one of the underrated consequences of a federal election: the potential for a new administration to alter the management of the federal workforce and the operations of individual departments within the executive branch. Although journalists eschew reporting of these consequences in favor of (legislatively focused) policy platforms and rallies, there is a wide body of academic research which investigates the impact of presidential administrations on the federal executive branch’s ability and capacity to fulfill its roles and responsibilities. 

One academic with such a focus is David Lewis, the Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Professor Lewis’ research and academic work extensively examines administrative state capacity and the relationship between given administrations and civil service performance. We interviewed Professor Lewis late last year to learn more about how academics think about the massively important but least discussed branch of the federal government: the executive branch.

Here are some of our main takeaways from the discussion, which we believe should inform media, advocates and researchers knowledge of the executive branch: 

1) There are simply too many political appointments. There are more political appointments in the United States than in many other western democracies.The White House selects well over 3,000 people to policy or confidential positions across the federal government. For comparison, Japan, the United Kingdom, and France have fewer than 30,102, and a little over over 300 appointees respectively across each government. Lewis emphasized that while political appointments are critical to ensuring the implementation of a president’s policy priorities, there are simply too many such positions. The current number of political appointments is not essential to maintaining federal government function and worse,  the belabored process of appointing  thousands of officials prevents the government from actually functioning as well as it could.

Information on positions across the federal government (including who held them last and salaries) are published every four years and found in a book called The United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions. However, this book is better known as the Plum Book because of its purple cover, and “because it’s filled with plum jobs, many of which are appointed by the winning presidential candidate.” Learn more about the Plum Book (then and now) here

2) Presidents struggle to fill political positions, especially senate confirmed ones. Senate-confirmed positions are often still vacant approximately 980 days after being available. According to the Center For Presidential Transition, as of December 2023, there are over 1,200 political leadership positions across the federal government that require Senate confirmation, including 303 presidential appointments for part-time positions on boards and commissions. 

The Washington Post has tracked and followed Biden’s attempt to fill 813 out of these nearly 1,200 positions that require Senate confirmation (excluding judges, marshals, US attorneys, and military appointments.) Of these 813 positions, only 630 have been Biden nominations confirmed by the Senate. On top of that, 90 are holdover appointees from the Trump administration, 64 are still being considered by the Senate, and 93 are yet to have a nominee. A similar pattern is true at the Independent Agencies – as of January 2024, there are still 71 eligible-for-nomination seats at the federal government’s independent agencies, including 32 vacant seats, and 39 positions held by officials whose terms have expired. Notably, Biden wasn’t the first incoming president who has struggled with filling key positions. This is a challenge every president faces: juggling filling the leadership ranks of the federal workforce with so many other urgent national priorities and policy issues. 

Furthermore, it takes an average of one year to nominate an appointee, and the average length of time to nominate grew from 384 to 466 days between the George W. Bush and Trump administrations. Yet political appointees typically only spend 18 to 24 months on the job, which is not enough time to truly understand the organizations they are running or implement policies they oversee. Not only do political appointments stay for shorter tenures, they run programs that tend to perform systematically worse than other programs. Both factors exacerbate existing government capacity issues

Given the number of vacancies, it makes little sense to have so many politically appointed positions, especially with the Senate’s sclerotic advice and consent process.

3) Political appointees are more likely to turn over than other types of appointees, exacerbating existing capacity issues. There are many different kinds of jobs in the executive branch, ranging from Senate confirmed jobs like ambassadorships and commission/board seats where wealthy and well-established donors potentially get placed, to Schedule C jobs, which are usually reserved for younger staffers with some prior experience.  

There are several factors that highlight the politically-driven motivations behind various appointments. Some agencies have close connections with the Democratic or Republican party, which increases the likelihood of people flocking to agencies with the same political affiliation. For example, as Professor Lewis noted in our interview, Democrats are more drawn to the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services whereas Republicans favor the Department of Defense. This is also frequently reflected in perception of the government, where certain agencies experience significantly higher favorability between either Republicans or Democrats

Furthermore, when a newly-elected presidential candidate makes personnel choices, performance is likely often not the primary concern. The desire of presidents-elect to reward campaign loyalists and supporters regularly supersedes the desire to find the right people for the job. This deprioritization of government performance eats away at executive branch agencies over time, as campaign appointees tend to do worse than careerists and public appointees

Patronage appointees—closely affiliated people selected from the winning campaign or party—are more likely to turn over than other types of appointees. Patronage appointees share some common traits. They tend to be young, ambitious individuals sourced from within the party who are likely to seek other jobs within the party apparatus, future administrations or with a group or firm with close ties to the party rather than remain in an agency and become a long-term careerist. This leads to political appointees having shorter tenures on average, and agencies that regularly receive political appointments having higher turnover and vacancy rates.

Additionally, political appointees who obtain jobs through working for the campaign or party tend to be less qualified than other appointees and careerists. FEMA is among the agencies that consistently receive less-experienced political appointees. Underqualified appointees negatively impacted the agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with multiple experienced career professionals leaving FEMA during the first two years of the Bush Administration. Indeed, appointees with less government experience and more campaign/party qualifications tend to be associated with poorer program performance.

4) Current criticisms of departments are frequently driven by ideological biases, rather than actual merits of performance. This ideological slant skews perception of administrations and the efficacy of their departments. And some departments are more subject to it than others—in certain institutions, departments have different impressions and reputations because of the partisan leaning of those who self-select into working at them. For example, military services and Veterans Affairs often tend to lean more conservative, and agencies handling social welfare (such as Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Labor) tend to lean more liberal. Those departments tend to take on different cultures and biases in the eyes of political actors, which shifts how presidents and other elected officials perceive different decisions, rules, and actions that come out of those departments depending on their ideological reputations. This also impacts whether or not support for different agencies fluctuates from administration to administration, and how susceptible the departments are to shifts in management style and priorities between administrations. 

Agencies that are very hot-button can also fall out of favor with the administration depending on partisan attention and scrutiny; this can be closely interlinked with media perception of a given department and the political moment most closely affiliated with any department in particular. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was extremely controversial with Republicans, who railed against the influence and authority of the agency. In preliminary plans for a potential Trump administration, conservatives have proposed dismantling and reorganizing the CDC, effectively making it weaker as a result of a political vendetta. 

Agency reputations frequently determine which agencies get appointments based on loyalty and campaign contributions rather than just qualifications. Presidents usually put these more “loyal” appointments where they don’t need to dramatically turn an agency around, but this often reinforces the partisan or ideological perception of a given department. This also can contribute reputations to the quality of political appointees, with agencies like Commerce and the Small Business Administration, whose responsibilities feature distributing federal funding, being perceived as meriting lower quality political appointees. 

In several cases, the partisan perceptions influence the mission of a given department, as well as its priorities. These perceptions also influence the President and their administration’s willingness to cut down on the number of political appointees at a given agency. Simply, Presidents are more amenable to cuts at agencies with opposing ideological slants.  

5) We need more long-term/permanent careerists in government. The federal government’s fiscal and budget process has been faulty for decades, resulting in staffing issues and less efficient agencies. Many federal agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, need more funding and employees to fulfill their mandate. In addition to more funding and employees, the presence of more careerists in permanent positions across the federal government would be especially beneficial. 

It takes a lot of time and political energy to fill spots with political appointees. Once completed, the appointment process repeats all over again soon after. Frustration with this lengthy process leads to short-term thinking when filling positions which inhibits agencies’ ability to focus on long-term policy issues that benefit the public. Having more career staff could help. Staff who are less at the whim of whichever current administration’s goals could reduce the number of temporary or acting appointees, and allow employees to dedicate themselves to long term issues. Additionally, politically appointed officials tend to prioritize the short term. Thus, political appointees may be less inclined to inform Congress of agencies’ needs for fear of their political career compared to careerists.  

6) Congressional committees do not inherently help departments and the executive branch function better. In a 2014 paper based on a survey of federal executives, Professor David Lewis alongside Vanderbilt Professors Clinton and Selin found that when multiple committees are involved, Congress has weakened oversight of federal government policy making. “While increasing the number of involved committees may maximize the electoral benefits for members, it may also undercut the ability of Congress as an institution to collectively respond to the actions of the presidency or the bureaucracy,” they write

For example, the existence of four different congressional committees with jurisdiction over the Department of Interior lends itself to oversight turf wars. In light of Lewis, Clinton, and Selin’s findings, congressional oversight over departments like the Interior Department can be enhanced by clearer jurisdictional lines between committees. It is more difficult to respond to the White House when committees disagree on who should take the lead. With clearer jurisdictional lines, the appropriate committee(s) can swiftly and uniformly respond to the White House on policy issues. 

7) It is incredibly difficult to effectively measure performance of the federal government – and there is little incentive for the federal government to change that. High level appointed officials typically get credit for policy-making, but not for ensuring that agencies work well, and day-to-day functions are smooth and efficient. They also don’t get credit for avoiding problems that might arise in the future, but do get credit for navigating problems that arise during their time in office. Because of this, there’s little incentive for leaders to revamp the quality of information that is produced on governance and staffing, or on the health of the public service.

Currently, the Office of Personnel and Management produces the federal employee viewpoint survey, but they don’t do any major analysis or sharing of that data. Agencies also do the same, but again don’t make this information available to the public. This means there’s no “heat map” for new Congresses or Presidencies to know what is happening with agency performance in the term before theirs, or to know how to address challenges that might exist. While processes like FOIA are a resource, they tend to be slow and less open than they should be, which limits public understanding of agency performance as well. Revamping this data collection and dissemination process and ensuring it is more user friendly can help centralize questions of government capacity and performance. After all, it’s difficult to be attentive to the capacity of an agency if you can’t get information reliably. 

8) The impact on staffing and personnel from presidential elections and subsequent transitions isn’t given enough attention. In presidential election years, there is typically an uptick in turnover out of the executive branch given the rhetoric of parties vying for the presidency and perception of how the administrative state might change if one of them were to win. This dramatic turnover can be consequential, in both weakening efficacy of departments, and losing important institutional knowledge and lessons from prior administrations. 

Even in the process of transitions, there is a significant difficulty in ensuring that candidates begin preparing well in advance of the election – especially when all attention is geared towards securing the presidency first. The federal budget is several trillion dollars, with 2.9 million civil servants and 250-300 different agencies. It’s immensely complicated and time consuming to plan how to manage the administrative state, and there isn’t enough time to do it between the election and inauguration. More attention needs to be given to building out the administration earlier in campaigns to ensure a smooth transition.

As the upcoming election draws near, news reporters, editors and producers ought to prioritize coverage of executive branch staffing issues, especially with the Republican Party’s publicly declared war on the federal civil service. 

There is a clear need to inform the public that one of the President’s key responsibilities is proper stewardship of the vast executive branch. The civil servants who staff up our vast federal government apparatus help keep our food, air, water, medicines and transportation safe. They also work daily to protect workers, consumers and check corporations’ corrupt and illegal behavior. Bombastic and unmoored attacks which cast these civil servants as members of some anti-democratic “Deep State” due to their committed public service should be treated with derision and recognized plainly as a ploy to evade accountability.  

On the other hand a serious look into the obstacles to improved government performance would be welcomed. These academic insights are frequently omitted in media coverage and other public conversation around staffing in the executive branch. However, they can assist in working to envision a more productive and responsive executive branch as we move into the next presidential term. 

Recommended Reading 

Image credit: “This White House Picture shows the front of the White House” by U.S. Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

2024 ElectionCongressional OversightExecutive BranchGovernment Capacity

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